The National Museum of Beirut basement boasts a stunning collection of funerary art, a must-visit during the rainy winter months

The National Museum of Beirut marked a significant milestone back in October, when it opened its basement level to the public for the first time in over 40 years. The beautifully restored space now houses a spectacular collection of funerary art, including the world’s largest collection of anthropoid sarcophagi – white marble tombs resembling mummy cases with delicately carved human faces. It’s a must-visit location and the perfect way to while away a gloomy winter afternoon.

Built between 1930 and 1937, the museum houses a fascinating collection of pieces, all of which were found in Lebanon and date from pre-history to the Ottoman era. But during the Lebanese Civil War it was on the frontlines of the fighting, located on the infamous Green Line that divided Beirut.

Thanks to the quick thinking of the director of antiquities at the time, the museum’s collection was hidden behind false walls in the basement or encased in concrete, and most of the artefacts were saved from looting and destruction. However, severe damage to the building over a 20-year period led to flooding and some objects were in need of extensive restoration.

The restored basement and its unique collection were unveiled by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam and former Minister of Culture Raymond Araygi, along with Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni, after a closure of 41 years. The restoration project cost 1.2 million euros and was funded by the Italian government and supported by Italian conservators.

Highlights of the collection include reconstructions of burials showing how, at different eras of Lebanon’s history, human remains were interred in large terracotta pots, along with jewellery, amulets and trinkets to accompany them in the afterlife, or cremated and ceremonially buried in special pottery vessels. The display of artefacts is designed to convey an idea of the rituals and beliefs of different civilisations.

The 31 anthropoid sarcophagi, found in the area around Sidon, are particularly stunning. An angled mirror reflects their faces, emphasising the mixture between Greek and Egyptian art that is characteristic of the Phoenician period, from the sixth to the fourth century BC, when these sarcophagi were made.


By Irene McConnell